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What To Do When Construction Noise Becomes Too Much To Handle

By Amy Zimmer | April 11, 2017 3:33pm
 Joanna Bickley, with her husband, Jason, and dog, Jack. The couple recently moved out of their apartment East of Madison Square Park, where they're sitting, to a quieter one west of the park.
Joanna Bickley, with her husband, Jason, and dog, Jack. The couple recently moved out of their apartment East of Madison Square Park, where they're sitting, to a quieter one west of the park.
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Joanna Bickley

MANHATTAN — When Joanna Bickley and her husband were deciding whether to move into their Gramercy apartment in April 2015, subletting from the condo’s owner, the huge terrace was the big draw — at first.

But a month after they moved in, the building began repairing the façade, locking their terrace from the outside and filling their apartment with the sound of construction. The noise continued for months — as a new construction project began across the street — until things got so bad that Bickley and her husband finally broke their lease early and moved out.

“There was drilling and noise every single day,” Bickley said. “The noise was absolutely incessant. Aside from being annoying, the noise of materials dropping from the crane was so loud that our golden retriever began hiding in the bathroom. Sleeping in on the weekends became a thing of the past.”

There were nearly 6,200 complaints made to 311 regarding after-hours work — any construction that happens before 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, or anytime on Saturday or Sunday — during the first quarter of this year, according to public data. That was down slightly from the same time the year before when more than 6,700 complaints were logged.

Any after-hours work must get a variance from the city before it can proceed, but those aren't hard to come by. During the first three months of this year, the DOB issued 13,831 after-hours variances, down slightly from 14,400 the year before.

When it comes to noise from construction, New Yorkers — particularly renters — have few options.

But experts say there are still a few things that you can do:

Do Your Homework About Upcoming Construction Projects Before Moving In

Bickley was especially disappointed that the broker representing the condo she sublet did not notify her of the pending work. As a broker herself, she’s now extremely attuned to the issue.

“After this experience, I am extra conscientious about talking to my clients about their lifestyle and concerns,” said Bickley, who works for BOND New York. “Construction noise is something that might not even occur to someone when looking for a new home. It is also a higher priority for some people than others. For example, for a young single person who is rarely home, noise can be much less of a concern than for someone with a newborn.”

She speaks to management companies and asks them if there are any upcoming projects in the buildings and how it will affect the occupants and for how long. She checks out whether there might be development coming soon nearby.

“If someone isn't using an agent they can call the management company themselves,” she advised. “Take a walk around the neighborhood, if there is a vacant lot or demolition taking place that's a pretty clear sign that things are going to be fairly loud for the next year or so.”

Jai Lee, a broker with Mdrn. Residential, said she’s had several clients avoid certain homes because of construction, including a recent one who found a “lovely” condo in the City Hall area where one of the bedroom windows faced construction.

“It was not only the noise but much of the sunlight would be blocked,” Lee said.

On the other hand, a client of hers currently looking for a townhouse in Gowanus said she wasn’t bothered by the massive amount of construction in the area since it would likely help her investment, ultimately.

“As long as it doesn’t block her view, she appreciates the construction because the area is going to be a good investment moving forward,” Lee said. “Construction can be a positive or a negative, depending on what the buyer wants.”

Find Out if the After-Hours Work Has Been Permitted

When there’s construction noise coming from your neighbors' units within a co-op or condo, the board can shut the work down if it violates the hours outlined by a building’s alteration agreements, experts say.

If construction noise is coming from elsewhere, it's subject to after-hours rules unless it has a variance.

One way to try to create a paper trail of issues is to call 311 to ask an inspector to come to your home to measure the noise. But as anyone who's tried it knows, it can be challenging to ensure inspectors arrive at your apartment at just the precise time the construction noise is happening.

“I have been told by the [Department of Environmental Protection] they do the best they can, but the city, as it has been explained to me, is remarkably understaffed,” said Lisa Radetsky a real estate attorney with Rosenberg & Estis.

All construction sites are required to develop noise mitigation plans before they begin work — which must outline how they’ll reduce the impact of noise, through strategies like using muffling equipment or quieter jackhammers. They are also required to show their expected construction time frame. The plans are submitted to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which has to sign off before work can begin.

However, it's not easy for neighbors to get their hands on those plans without contacting the DEP or contractor directly.  That’s why East Side City Councilman Dan Garodnick proposed a bill in October requiring the DEP post noise mitigation plans for construction sites on its website and requiring developers to post the plans on construction fences in clear view.

Odds are that if you're hearing noise, it's probably allowed — but it's worth checking first.

“Most people are smart enough that they’re not working after hours if they don’t have a permit,” Radesky said, adding that fines for construction crews caught for violating noise laws increase exponentially, from $2,500 for the first, then $5,000 and up.

When All Else Fails, Negotiate

If you're stuck with the noise, experts say, consider using it as a bargaining chip.

Tiger Koehn, a broker who is also with BOND, spent three months last spring trying to find a couple a new apartment because of rampant construction noise from the two hotels being built on the block of their NoMad rental.

The landlord, however, recognized that the couple — a doctor and marketing agent — have been easygoing renters who pay on time and convinced them to stay by lowering their rent from $6,800 a month to about $5,400 a month and installing ultra-sound proof windows.

“The landlord was smart,” Koehn said. “He wanted to keep quality tenants, who paid their rent. And after all of that, [the tenants] were able to stay and now are comfortable and free of construction noise.”